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'Schools are the safest place for students' | Guilford County Schools ready for another pandemic school semester

Superintendent Dr. Sharon Contreras said Tuesday that some schools may need to switch to virtual learning on a case-by-case basis.

GUILFORD COUNTY, N.C. — Guilford County school officials said Tuesday they are committed to keeping schools open with in-person instruction as students return for the spring semester.

“I just believe that the damage that remote learning did to the students' social and emotional well-being and their learning was so great that we should not be considering moving entire districts to remote learning,” said Dr. Sharon Contreras, superintendent of Guilford County Schools.

Dr. Contreras and public health officials agree that, even with the omicron variant, schools are a safe place for children.

“Detection of cases in schools does not necessarily mean that transmission occurred in the school,” said Guilford County Public Health Director Dr. Iulia Vann. “Most cases that are acquired in the community and brought into a school setting result in limited spread inside schools when multiple layers of preventative strategies are in place.”

According to Dr. Vann, studies have shown that there is no difference in COVID-19 hospitalizations in counties with in-person learning versus virtual learning. Dr. Vann said the prevention strategies in place in schools such as masking, hand washing, and physical distancing go a long way.

RELATED: 'We need your help:' GCS has no plans to return to remote learning, urges vaccinations

While district officials said they do not anticipate district-wide remote learning, staffing issues or COVID-19 cases may cause specific schools or classrooms to go to remote learning. They want families to be prepared in case of emergency closings, including bringing school-issued devices home each day, keeping them powered up, and letting the school know if a child has issues accessing virtual learning.

“We’ve provided professional learning for teachers and have tools in place for them to be able to pivot to that remote instruction where they are delivering their classwork remotely,” said Whitney Oakley, deputy superintendent of Guilford County Schools. “We are very hopeful that we will be able to handle that on a case by case basis.”

However, the district continues to face a shortage of both substitutes and bus drivers making staffing a challenge. On Tuesday, 200 classrooms were without a substitute teacher, forcing administrative staff to fill in the gaps. The district is offering an incentive for substitutes: if they work every day for the month, they get a $1000 bonus.

“We are hopeful that that will assist us in making sure that we have adequate coverage but it’s just very difficult to find employees in all fields,” Dr. Contreras added.

With a shortage of bus drivers, Dr. Contreras is urging parents to bring their children to school if possible.

“We need your assistance in alleviating the stress on the system,” said Contreras.

Right now, 80% of Guilford County staff are fully vaccinated, 65% of district bus drivers are vaccinated. The Guilford County Department of Public Health vaccinated/boosted 130 teachers at teacher-only clinics Monday.

GCS is also holding student and staff COVID-19 drive-thru testing all week at Andrew High School, Grimsley High School, and Dudley High School from 10:00 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and from 5:30 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. Staff need to bring their school ID and/or a recent paystub, along with their driver’s license. Students need to bring their school ID or have the name of their school/homeroom teacher. Students need parental permission.

The district is planning to start an optional COVID-19 testing program. Dr. Contreras said details on the program will come in the next few weeks.

“While words are inadequate to express how challenging the pandemic has been for all of us and how heartbroken we were at the loss of life we’ve experienced in Guilford County and across the nation and world, this much I know to be true, we will get through this and we will emerge stronger and better for it. That’s the GCS way. That’s the North Carolina way, and that’s the American way,” said Dr. Contreras.

RELATED: Guilford County Schools offers drive-thru COVID testing for students and employees